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Charles Koch eyes sentencing reform as a 2015 priority

Conservative mega-donor Charles Koch says reforming the criminal justice system to make it more fair to the “disadvantaged” will be a major one of his priorities in 2015.

The businessman said that the criminal justice system needs reforms aimed at “making it fair and making [criminal] sentences more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”

 “Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch told The Wichita Eagle in an interview published Saturday night. “And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged.”

Koch’s top lawyer noted that federal and state-level criminal justice policy has had an outsized impact on minority communities.

“It definitely appears to have a racial angle, intended or not,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s chief counsel.

In addition to sentencing reform, Holden mentioned winning voting rights for nonviolent felons and making it easier to expunge criminal records of minors as areas in need of attention.

Holden and Koch did not say what form the advocacy efforts would take. Koch and his brother David are prominent donors to individual candidates and super-PACs, but also back major conservative think tanks.

Koch has given money in the past to groups to help give poor people access to lawyers in certain cases. He told the Eagle that he is partly motivated by a belief that his business enterprises have been heavily targeted by government litigation, which he was only able to fight with millions of dollars.

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. The growth in incarceration was fueled in part by “tough on crime” rhetoric that for decades defined the way politicians approached criminal justice.

But Koch’s comments reflect a growing consensus within some sections of the right that the criminal justice system’s is too harsh on some types of offenders — particularly individuals convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

Agreement on what form solutions to this problem might take remains elusive inside the GOP, however.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have all pushed for modest changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that have led to the disproportionate imprisonment of black and Hispanic Americans.

Others want different reforms. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has co-sponsored a package aimed at reducing prison populations but that does not make changes to the sentencing laws.

Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will decide what criminal justice reform measures, if any, see a vote in the Senate during the next two years, opposes the sentencing reform measures but has expressed an interest in making changes in the way the justice system treats minors.

Tags Chuck Grassley John Cornyn Mike Lee Rand Paul Ted Cruz
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